Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political roundup: Catching up with the Labour Party

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2016 is a crucial year for the Labour Party and Andrew Little. For a catch-up on what’s been said over summer about Labour – including by Labour itself – see the following 20 stories.
Labour Party leader Andrew Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Party leader Andrew Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A number of media reports and blog posts over the last month suggest Labour is about to release some big policies, but also that the party might be having trouble grappling to stay relevant and return to greater popularity. The main question to arise out of these items is how radical or conservative is Labour going to be in 2016?

1) Newstalk ZB reports that Little is promising big announcements in 2016. In an interview,he outlined Labour's plans: "The first year was about sorting out some of the internal things, which we've done. The second year is about the year of ideas and we've got to get those out because past experience tells us making big announcements in an election year isn't particularly a good idea. So we'll have five or six big announcements to make throughout the year. Stand by for the State of the Nation speech at the end of this month, so that'll be the first big indication of where we are going. So 2017, then, is just focused not so much on getting the big ideas out there but actually campaigning on the ones we've announced."

2) Much of Labour's promised radicalism is based around the work of finance spokesperson Grant Robertson, and this is profiled in depth by Richard Harman in his feature, Labour's radical economic rethink. This focuses mostly on Robertson's Commission on the Future of Work, which is expected to lead to innovative new employment and education policies, some of which could challenge some leftwing values of the labour movement.

One of Robertson's possible new employment policies could involve reduced job security for workers, which Harman says is surprising for a party founded by and for workers 100 years ago: "That a Labour politician is prepared to allow for a system under which workers could be laid off quickly is a major ideas-shift within the party and an indication of just how radical the Commission's final report is likely to be. Harman also points to Robertson's willingness to consider using public private partnerships, and adopting National's capital gains tax by proxy policy (the "bright line test"), and extending it to five years.

3) Labour's policy generation focus is also emphasised by Richard Harman in his profile on Andrew Little - see: Labour's serious year. He says that "This will be the year that makes or breaks Andrew Little." It also includes further quotes from Little that emphasise further radicalism: "I think these are big challenges and they need big responses... We are facing an age when incrementalism simply won't cut it and we've got to be prepared to be bold and we need New Zealanders to understand that it's going to take some bold responses and they've got to be long term responses if we are doing justice to the issue... We have to be thinking in pretty big terms."

4) For more information on Robertson's Future of Work Commission, see Isaac Davison's Expect radical changes to economic policy, says Robertson. And note that Robertson (@grantrobertson1) tweeted yesterday to say "Excited to announce Robert Reich and Guy Standing will be keynote speakers at our #futureofwork conference in March".

5) Labour and Robertson are enthusiastic about adopting Denmark's "flexicurity" employment regime, which Chris Trotter critiques in his column, "Flexicurity" - The Future Of Work? Trotter points out that there's a profound difference between the labour markets of Denmark and New Zealand, namely that Denmark has a unionisation rate of about 75 per cent compared to New Zealand's 19 per cent. This could mean that if the flexicurity model was implemented here - with its reduced protections for workers - it could simply turn "into a government-backed scheme for employers to hire and fire at will."

6) Trotter goes further to paint Robertson's promised radicalism as potentially akin to that of Roger Douglas' in 1983, suggesting that there are plenty of parallels between Labour's position then as a party out of power for eight years, desperate to find ways to usurp National as modernisers of the economy: "Robertson is readying the Labour Party for another bid to win the backing of big business. Like Roger Douglas before him, he is inviting his party to become, once again, New Zealand's great political facilitator. Last time it was the Free Market Revolution of 1984-93 that Labour facilitated" - see: Third Term Temptations.

7) But Labour's recently released Future of Work policy paper, Economic Development and Sustainability suggests something much less dynamic according to commentator Phil Quin - see: Labour's Language Problem. He argues that Labour's document is an "example of the ways bureaucratese has infected political language. Consider this fact alone: in a short document comprising a touch over eight pages, the word "sustainable" is used a staggering fifteen times."

Quin explains the heavy use of buzzwords and "inoffensive, uncontroversial statements of the bleeding obvious" as being due to Robertson's background as a bureaucrat together with his general "risk-averse" nature. But he ponders if Labour has a bigger problem: "More and more, Labour thinks, acts and communicates less like a political party than some hybrid government department/NGO, having lost along the way the knack of talking to voters in language likely to resonate, let alone persuade."

8) Labour's self-proclaimed radicalism is also seriously questioned in Chris Trotter's column Orbiting a Dying Sun? Trotter says that in its centenary year it is natural to compare the Labour parties of 1916 and 2016, but doesn't mince words when he says "it is not an exercise from which Labour emerges with any credit. In 1916, Labour was led by heroes. One hundred years on, perhaps predictably, it is led by colourless political careerists: men and women lacking the character, courage and creative intelligence to be genuine revolutionaries - or even effective reformers."

Trotter writes that "Growing evidence of the emergence of a new progressive paradigm" - seen in the rise of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK - seemingly has no resonance for the modern Labour Party: "Mention Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Syriza or Podemos to the New Zealand Labour Party, however, and you will be met with a mixture of impatience and hostility." In order to illustrate this point, Trotter recounts party founder and prime minister Peter Fraser declaring "If I was in Russia, I'd be a Bolshevik!", and doubts that Andrew Little would ever proclaim, "If I was in Greece, I'd be a member of Syriza!"

9) Another leftwing blogger, Steven Cowan also questions the moderate direction Andrew Little and Grant Robertson are taking the party in - see: Labour's brave "new" world. He says "Labour could have gone down a different path - one signposted by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the United States. It could be advocating polices that swing the levers of economic and political power back toward ordinary people, rather than ensuring that they remain in the grip of the business sector. They are the kind of polices that have revived Labour's fortunes in the UK and have Bernie Sanders threatening to upset Hilary Clinton's bid to become the Democrat's presidential candidate. But we know what Labour thinks. After Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader, Grant Robertson was quick to dispel any notion that New Zealand Labour would be going down Corbyn's path. According to Robertson, polices that might be 'suitable' for the UK may not be 'appropriate' for New Zealand'."

10) Some degree of radicalism is being expressed by the party's new tertiary education spokesman, Chris Hipkins, who is promising that a Labour Government would "significantly" reduce tertiary education fees - see: Tertiary fees 'likely to drop under Labour'. But until further indications of how much the reduction would be and how it would be achieved, most will consider this an empty promise.

11) Changes to Labour's foreign policy might disappoint for many Labour supporters according to Gordon Campbell, who suggests that "Norman Kirk must be rolling in his grave" due to an apparent major shift on the question of New Zealand's battle against ISIS - see: On Labour's endorsement of a combat role.

Pointing to various Labour Party statements that flew under the radar during the pre-Christmas period, Campbell suggests that Labour has performed a U-turn on its opposition to sending military trainers to Iraq, and that Labour now goes even further in advocating that the SAS be sent. His explanation is that Labour must fear being "caught out on the "peace" side of the debate" and cynically wants to pre-empt the Government's possible announcement of involvement in the Middle East.

12) One temptation for Labour could be to change leaders, and Matthew Hooton says in his paywalled NBR column that this will be Labour's Little dilemma. He states bluntly that the Labour leader's successes - mostly around achieving at least an appearance of caucus unity and sidelining unpalatable policies - are the "achievements of a loser": "Mr Little's personal poll ratings are atrocious. The party finds itself five points below where it was at the same time in the last electoral cycle and the Greens have flatlined."

Hooton says before the year is out the party will have to decide whether to remain loyal or "knife him", though he believes "On balance, the odds must be on Mr Little hanging on." Whatever Labour does, "standing fast" and waiting for a global political sea change to sweep the party to power is not an effective strategy. It's an approach Hooton terms the "Cuba Mall coffeehouse delusion" and one which he believes Labour activists are in thrall to: "Perhaps they're right. "Perhaps, in a year's time, President Sanders will just have taken residence in the White House, union boss Bill Shorten will have turfed out Malcolm Turnbull from The Lodge, Mr Corbyn will be level-pegging with David Cameron, and Mr Little will be ready to mount a serious challenge against Mr Key for 2017 with the "radical" changes to economic policy that Grant Robertson promises. But it all seems unlikely."

13) According to Audrey Young, Little is "safe until the election, no question" - see her wide-ranging piece on what 2016 might hold for Labour: Legendary Tizard links Labour past and future. In this, Young begins by regaling readers with a series of anecdotes designed to show what an asset to Labour Bob Tizard once was. She then moves on to outline the kind of progress the party will be looking for in its centenary year.

14) Usually spin doctors are at pains to remain invisible and scrupulously avoid inserting themselves into the political debate. Labour strategist Rob Salmond recently broke with that practice when he penned the curious On tour with the Boss. It's a glowing account of his five days accompanying Andrew Little as he attended meetings in Washington and New York. Apparently the trip was "to assist Andrew in his preparation to become Prime Minister" which, in Salmond's view, his boss absolutely ought to be.

15) Labour can certainly win the next election according to Rodney Hide: "The polls this far out don't matter much. They are certainly not a predictor of what will happen over the next two years." However, Hide's crucial caveat is that Labour must stop being delusional. He is referring to president Nigel Haworth's Christmas message to the party which declared: "We're finishing an excellent year in which the polls and popular feeling on the streets tells us that we are on course to victory in 2017" - see: Don't mention the polls!

Hide warns that positivity and having confidence is one thing but completely abandoning reality is another. Perpetrating a false sense of security negates the need to "change the course of events and to make history. That's what Labour must do." Hide also points out that, as the polls certainly do not show Labour on track to win the next election, Haworth's statement has the effect of undermining confidence in a leadership that does not appear to have a grasp on the situation at hand.

16) This is also a view Labour Party supporter Phil Quin shares in his blog post, Go home, Labour, you're drunk. He says, "Sadly, Haworth's bullshit is greatly damaging. Labour would be much better off with a president who is willing to confront party members and activists with the ugly truth of Labour's predicament. As with any individual, organisation or company that has endured persistent failure, there can be no hope for Labour until it can reckon with the underlying causes for the existential crisis it faces but refuses to acknowledge".

17) Quin still describes himself as a Labour "supporter" despite his resignation from the party last year when Labour launched its campaign on "Chinese sounding names". Now he's announced that he'll do his best to make sure the author of that campaign, Phil Twyford, loses his Te Atatu seat - see Nicholas Jones' Twyford's seat targeted after Chinese-names furore.

18) Andrew Little has revealed the highlights of his summer break with Jo Moir - see: Labour leader Andrew Little shares his Kiwi summer holiday. He proclaims a liking for trifle, and divulged his choice of John Grisham over the TPP document as holiday reading. Rising Labour star Jacinda Ardern also shares her holiday reading choice - David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell: "It was really interesting and changes the way you think about success and failure, which is great for someone in Opposition" - see Moir's Labour MP Jacinda Ardern has enjoyed spending time in the kitchen this summer.

19) Labour is continuing its party organisation shakeup, with the appointment of a new general secretary to replace Tim Barnett - see Jo Moir's Andrew Kirton appointed as Labour Party's new general secretary. This article details Kirton's background as a "public relations man" in London and former communications advisor to Helen Clark and co-president of the New Zealand University Students' Association. While overseas the thirtysomething reportedly "remained close to the Labour Party and organised Labour's London support network, campaigning for the expat vote during the last two elections."

20) Finally, what's happened to the working class in what used to be a working class party? The selection of Andrew Kirton as the party's general secretary is typical of modern Labour, says Phil Duncan in New Labour Party general secretary indicative of party's managerial capitalism. Duncan writes: "Once upon a time... Kirton's background would have fitted him for a bright future in the National Party. That he is a Labourite indicates the interchangeable nature of Labour and National these days."

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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